Can Changing Congress’ Seats Change Washington?
We are hours away from the start of the President’s State of the Union address. I haven’t flipped cable news on this morning, but my hunch is that the airwaves are filled with pundits and prognosticators telling us What It All Means and what the President absolutely must do. Which, coincidentally, also happens to be whatever policy position is most important to that particular pundit.
I hate to be the one to break it all of you, but the State of the Union doesn’t really matter. Sure, it’s a snapshot in time that describes the President’s vision and draws a contrast with the opposition. And it can momentarily coalesce politicians, activists and interest groups around a common vision. And yes, I will no doubt get annoyed as the President makes sure to genuflect to the gods of Wall Street because, apparently, there is nothing more dangerous in America today than the wounded ego of a Wall Street Banker. But as a substantive matter, outside of the Beltway and the chattering masses, the State of the Union just doesn’t make much of an impact. TAPPED’s Jamie Bouie took up this mantle yesterday,
Ahead of the State of the Union (and all its attendant chatter), it’s worth noting that these have little effect on the public’s perception of the president…
Bill Clinton was the only president in 35 years to see a measurable bump in his approval rating following the State of the Union. Even then, it was a modest 3-point gain that had little impact on his ability to move legislation through Congress.
Far from helping, the State of the Union is more likely to hurt a president’s approval rating; Carter and George W. Bush saw a 1-point drop in their approval, while George H.W. Bush saw a significant 4-point decline. Even Reagan — the so-called Great Communicator — saw an average drop of 1 point. There is simply little evidence that the State of the Union moves public opinion, which isn’t a big surprise, since in general, the president is rarely able to move the public, even in the most favorable conditions.
So keep that in mind tonight when the Great Bloviators of network and cable news come on the air to Tell You What It All Means – it probably doesn’t mean much. This year is unique though, coming just weeks after the attempted assisantiation in Tucson the spectacle of the State of the Union has taken on a much larger role in our public discourse.
Aside from just the speech this year’s State of the Union provides another bit of “news” which has occupied the Versailes Georgetown cocktail scene for weeks now – my senior Senator’s idea that Republican’s and Democrats should sit together tonight, as a show of unity. At first (and second and third) blush Senator Mark Udall’s proposal is a classic Beltway Bubble idea – shallow, trite, a superficial papering over of the fact that hey, you know what? People disagree about things! To be fair Udall’s idea was borne out of the tragedy in Tucson and is an attempt to make Senator’s interact with the other party a little more and to, hopefully, see the other side as a little more human. And Udall isn’t totally off base – his idea just doesn’t go far enough. You see, one night of kumbaya on the House floor isn’t going to change the culture in Washington but there is evidence that who a legislator sits next to can, over the long run, influence their voting patterns.
University of Denver Political Scientist Seth Masket wrote about this phenomenon in 2008 after studying decades worth of roll-call votes in the California Assembly. In the abstract Masket lays out his findings,
…each member [of the California Assembly] is paired with a deskmate. By comparing deskmate pairs with nondeskmate pairs, I fund that legislators vote identically to their deskmates on a sizable subset of roll calls. This deskmate effect appears to remain strong even as a rival influence – legislative partisanship – increases in strength.
Masket’s article really is a fascinating read; He found that as the parties become more and more internally cohesive (as today’s Congress is) the “deskmate effect” does not diminish. Masket acknowledges that the effect is small and that modern political institutions are strong but,
Nonetheless, the influence of legislators upon each other continues. Although it is difficult to be certain how much this seating effect ultimately affects the legislative outcomes of a chamber, this paper has shown that such an effect exists at the individual level and is surprisingly robust…”
So Congress, just like with impetuous children, can be influenced by their peers. I say we assign deskmates tonight at the State of the Union. Everyone is already there, we can have the members number off like we’re picking teams in gym class.
Next week we’ll look into adding nap time and maybe increasing their feedings.
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